38"You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Jesus continues here to speak on the ideal standards of conduct for those who belong to the Kingdom of God. Of course, not all whom we meet in life follow these standards of conduct. In these verses, Jesus addresses what our response should be to those who treat us badly, who do us an evil turn. The essence of his teaching is love towards the one who wronged us, not revenge. Jesus teaches: "You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person" (vss. 38-39).
In saying this, Jesus was in no way nullifying or abolishing the original Law that He cites here. The original Law that specified "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth" was a guideline for the leaders of Israel to use in determining the punishment of criminals (see Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). This guideline was never meant to be used by individuals in redressing personal wrongs. On the contrary, the Lord Himself commanded in the Law: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:18).
As used properly, in a society for sentencing criminals, the guideline "eye for eye, and tooth for tooth" is excellent in its fairness and justice. Such a guideline makes sure that the punishment does not exceed what it should be, while at the same time it makes sure that the punishment is sufficient to punish the crime. However, "good law in court may be very bad custom in common society." The guideline "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" does not work well at all in redressing personal wrongs. If everyone followed it, each wrong would turn into a never-ending series of retaliations. Each retaliation would tend to escalate, for a wrong seems much greater in the eye of the victim than it does in the eye of the perpetrator. And so, far from achieving justice and peace in the society, the guideline would spawn hatred and range wars between families. In the hands of sinful men, rather than being an instrument of proper justice, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" becomes a license for cruelty and hatred. It's just too easy to find personal wrongs that have been done to us (just as it is so easy for others to find wrongs that we have done to them).
Jesus commands His disciples to put a stop to all the retaliation. Again, rather than "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" retaliation, Jesus commanded: "Do not resist an evil person." To illustrate what He means, Jesus gives us four examples of what, in lieu of retaliation, our response should be. Each of these examples offers an alternative to vengeful anger. First: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (vs. 39). Many regard this verse (as Spurgeon points out) as "fanatical, utopian, and even cowardly." Yet, on the other hand, this passage has inspired many great men (Christians and non-Christians) in their great work, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Such varied response to this verse is due to its radicalness.
Many stumble on this verse because they get hung up by extreme applications of it. They ask, "Does this mean Christians cannot be soldiers in war? Does this mean we cannot protect ourselves if a murderer invades our house? etc..." In concentrating on these extremes, they are distracted from the heart of the matter: be first in peace; show love to your enemy. This is the principle Jesus is teaching. It is not a general rule that applies to any and every instance of evil perpetrated, locally and globally. It does not prevent Christians from serving in war, for war is a societal action, not a personal slap on the face. It does not prevent Christians from defending themselves from a murderer, for a murderer is not seeking to insult with a slap, but to take human life.
Having said this, let us get back to the heart of the matter: be first in peace; show love to your enemy. Let us review the situation: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." A strike on the right cheek implies a slap with the back of the hand (since most people are right-handed). Such a slap is the action that accompanies a demeaning insult. In this situation, Jesus is commanding that, instead of rearing back with our right hand, we hold our peace, even "turn to him the other [cheek] also." Be first in peace. "But wait!", you may ask, "would not turning the other cheek encourage more violence, more evil on his part? In that way, would we not be inciting him to sin?" An interesting objection, but to turn the other cheek is the best option. Think about it. If you fight back, "eye for eye", you yourself are led into sin, and the perpetrator will think that his cruel action was justified. Alternatively, if you turn and run away from the insult, the perpetrator declares victory. His insult has achieved its objective. However, if you turn the other cheek, what has the perpetrator achieved? His insult has not achieved its desired effect, because you turn as if to want more. And then, what good would striking you again do for him, for you have literally asked for it? His failure to phase you, his failure at his insult, causes him to think twice about what he has done. It is then, his conscience begins its work, showing him the cruelty of his actions.
By turning the other cheek, you follow Paul's exhortation: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21). Our Lord Jesus, of course, practiced what He preached. He Himself was slapped in the face (see Matt. 26:67; John 19:3), and even more. Through all of His suffering, He had the power to retaliate, but chose not to. Instead, He chose to "overcome evil with good."
In day-to-day life, we are seldom slapped in the face, but we are often insulted in other ways. Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek" can be applied perfectly to these day-to-day situations. Is there someone reviling you behind your back? Do not do the same behind his. In fact, in keeping with the spirit of "turning the other cheek", you would do well to admit your faults to him in person. Does a coworker speak badly to your boss of your performance? Do not speak badly of his. "Turn the other cheek" and admit your faults to your boss. He may be impressed by your honesty. Are you often mocked to your face? "Turn the other cheek" and laugh right along.
Not only did our Lord Jesus put up with literal slaps in the face, but our God is continuously slapped in the face by men. Listen to the talk on the streets. Is not our God continuously blasphemed, insulted, reviled, cursed? Does not He turn the other cheek and continuously reach out to those who curse Him? Has not He turned the other cheek and sent His own Son to die for us, that we might live? Lord, forgive us. Praise be to the Lord! May we be more like you.
40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
Jesus' first example of how we avoid revenge concerned personal insult. This next example concerns our hold on personal property. Jesus teaches: "And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well" (vs. 40). In this case, your adversary evidently thinks he has a right to your "tunic", thus he brings suit against you. Jesus' command is, rather than let things get contentuous over such a small thing as a tunic, settle matters without contention, and let him have your tunic. Moreover, give him your cloak as well. In other words, do not let your hold on your earthly possessions be so strong so as to engender feelings of revenge, cause strife, and precipitate lawsuits. Does your adversary think that your tunic should be his? Well, give him both your cloak and your tunic. He may just then think (as he is holding your cloak in his hand): "Hmmm. I have no right to his cloak. As a matter of fact, I probably have no right to his tunic, either." Such treatment to your adversaries follows Paul's advice (himself quoting the Book of Proverbs): "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head" (see Rom. 12:17-21). Submission to those with evil intent has a way of activating their consciences, and in this way, "heaping burning coals on [their heads]." Love to your enemies is the most effective way to change their behavior.
The next example concerns enforced labor: "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles" (vs. 41). Jesus here is alluding to a Roman law which allowed a Roman soldier to press anyone into service to carry the soldier's burden for a mile (actually for a thousand paces). Interestingly, Simon from Cyrene was pressed into service in this way to carry Jesus' cross on the way to the crucifixion (see Luke 23:26). Little did Simon know, but that he was easing the burden of the Lord of the Universe by being obedient to the request of the Roman soldiers!
Jesus commands that, in any case, rather than grumbling about being pressed into service, rather than thinking of how to get the soldier back for asking such a thing, we should not only go one mile with him, but two. We should use the opportunity to show love for the requestor: give him more help than he had a right to expect. Though there is no longer a law that allows soldiers to press us into service in this way, this verse is directly applicable in our lives in a variety of situations, especially in our work places. How often does your boss ask you to do something that you feel is entirely unreasonable (though it be within the scope of your job)? Don't fight it, go the extra mile. Such an attitude could only improve your career!
By the way, the importance of these teachings of Jesus can be demonstrated by how portions of two of these verses have become well-known idioms in our language, used by both non-Christians and Christians. In an unpleasant situation, how often have you heard the advice to "turn the other cheek." Or, when receiving encouragement, how often has someone advised you to "go the extra mile". Praise the Lord that such sound advice has passed into everyday language!
The final example that Jesus has for us in this matter concerns sharing our possessions: "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (vs. 42). In context, Jesus is advising us to not have such a strong hold on our earthly possessions, such that a request for help engenders angry feelings, and a desire for revenge. Relax your grip on the things you grasp so tightly. As Paul exhorts, we who are blessed materially in this world are to "be generous and willing to share" (I Tim. 6:18). "We are beggars, to whom [God] gives liberally, and we must return to Him by giving to our fellowmen." Alas, though, giving can be complicated. Many request gifts, some don't deserve them. Broadus has these words of advice on knowing when to give: "(1) We must not refuse all because many are impostors. (2) We should strive to ascertain who are really needy and deserving, and to inform others. (3) We must not turn beggars away simply because offensive or annoying--this would be a very petty selfishness. (4) Where there is public provision for beggars we should act in harmony with such arrangements, but cannot remit the matter wholly to them. (5) To open some means of supporting themselves is far better than to support them."